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The Ukraine Situation: Producing Analysis Using the Five Habits of the Master Thinker

The attention of the world is focused on Ukraine. If you were an analyst supporting the National Security Council in that region, you would be generating a lot of analysis on extremely short deadlines. In this month’s Analytic Insider, I review how you could leverage the Five Habits of the Master Thinker to assist you in this task.

The Five Habits were developed specifically to help analysts generate a rigorous analysis when there is insufficient time to engage in a Structured Analytic Technique exercise. The Five Habits are:

  • Challenge Your Key Assumptions
  • Consider Alternative Hypotheses
  • Look for Inconsistent Data
  • Identify Key Drivers
  • Understand the Overarching Context

Using the Five Habits of the Master Thinker, I have produced the following analysis. Bear in mind that this analysis was drafted on 21 February, and the situation in Ukraine is likely to change dramatically in subsequent days.

Challenge Your Key Assumptions. As of 21 February, the lead hypothesis is that Russia will launch a large-scale military invasion within days across Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders involving some 200,000 troops with the objective of installing a more Kremlin-friendly government in Kyiv. Key assumptions worthy of challenge include the scale and geographic breadth of the attack, timing, and the overall objective. Other assumptions to challenge are that only Ukraine will be targeted, that China is supportive, that Ukraine forces are unable to offer stiff resistance, and that an invasion must be launched within days or weeks before the ground is no longer frozen.

Consider Alternative Hypotheses. Challenging one’s assumptions allows one to consider a broader range of hypotheses such as:

  • Russian military activity will be concentrated in the east with the primary objective to convert the eastern provinces into a region responsive to Russian interests.
  • An all-out invasion does not happen; instead, we will witness a multifaceted campaign (including lesser attacks by Russian military and rebel forces, major disinformation and deception campaign, cyber attacks, political acts possibly including assassinations, and escalating diplomatic pressure).
  • Putin realizes that he cannot afford another Afghanistan, and concerns about internal dissidence and possible pressure from foreign allies dissuade him from a major invasion and spur him to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
  • Putin launches a large-scale invasion and as soon as sanctions are applied, he launches crippling cyber attacks on NATO states, including the United States, escalating the conflict into a NATO-Russian “soft war.”

The job of the analyst is to develop and track indicators for each scenario and monitor which one appears to be emerging as the most likely trajectory.

Look for Inconsistent Data.  Russian claims in the past week that they are withdrawing some troops from the border are easily disproved by satellite imagery and other inconsistent data that show by the movement of Russian forces right up to the border. The shipment of blood supplies to the border is an even more vivid example of inconsistent data. Looking ahead, potentially “good inconsistent data” would be a continuing failure to launch an invasion and the holding of a US-Russia Summit meeting. The analytic team must take care not to dismiss inconsistent data as noise because it does not support their lead hypothesis.

Identify Key Drivers. In an ideal world, any issue—no matter how complex—can be described in terms of four key drivers. In this instance, some candidate key drivers are:

  • Putin’s determination to reassert Russian dominance over its remaining non-NATO near-neighbors.
  • Whether NATO can remain united.
  • The impact of sanctions (threatened or imposed) on Russia, its economy, political stability, and military capabilities.
  • How the Russian people react to Putin’s actions, particularly if body bags start flowing home and the economy takes a dive.

Understand the Overarching Context. One overarching question is: What is motivating Putin? How has he balanced the costs and benefits to him and Russia of invading Ukraine? Or is he even doing that? Most likely he will be influenced heavily by how the four key drivers listed above play out. Are Putin and Russia rich enough to absorb the impact of sanctions? Would Putin calculate that delaying an invasion will increase opportunities to sow division within NATO?

From the perspective of NATO members, is it essential to stand up to Russia now to prevent future incursions across other borders? Can NATO members absorb the economic and political costs of dramatically increased gas and oil prices and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure? And perhaps most significant, can Germany and other parts of Europe find ways to live without the Nord Stream pipeline?

The job of the analyst is to understand and frame the issue for the decision maker in terms of the overall context of the problem. By focusing on the overarching context and the key drivers, the decision maker has a better chance of mitigating bad scenarios and enhancing the prospects of good scenarios.

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